We take streaming music on our phones for granted but the same still isn’t true for our two-channel home hi-fi systems. There are options that aim to do just that and one of the simpler ones is what we are looking at here…
Pronounced “vessel”, the VSSL A.1 is at the entry point in a range of multiroom amplifiers and streamers that are probably the most simplistic expression of audio equipment this side of a power amplifier. The little grey box only has two LEDs to indicate power and status, both of which are quick to convey what’s happening with the A.1. Its primary use case scenario would be an older hi-fi system that doesn’t have Bluetooth or casting capability of any kind, or if you want to stream music throughout different rooms of the house. You could use the A.1 as a stereo amplifier with its built-in 35wpc Class D or bypass the amp section completely and just use it as a streamer to send music to a different zone in the house. The more expensive models in the VSSL range do multiple zones up to three or even six!
Plug it to your home network via the ethernet input or WiFi, either way, it’s easy as pie. Just open Google Home to initialise the device and you can then assign zones and sources via the dedicated VSSL app. From unboxing to listening to your favourite tunes, it all takes less than 5 minutes and that really emphasises the ethos behind VSSL as a brand. They’ve designed the system to be as easy to use and set-up as possible and while its connectivity is generous, it never overwhelms you with the technology. Both analogue and digital inputs and outputs are provided for, so you can use the A.1 as just a source (via the Line-Out only toggle) or an all-in-one device that can power your speakers, stream your music and distribute it throughout your house if you have multiple A.1s connected. Of course, the difference between a wired and wireless connection is that you’re able to access music from any device on the same network, be it a NAS, laptop etc. On the other hand, with built-in WiFi and “native streaming”, the moment you set-up the A.1 through the Google Home app, it instantly shows up as an option on Apple Music via AirPlay, Spotify Connect and Cast for any Android device, thanks to its built-in Chromecast too. Working via Google Assistant, you can also control it using just your voice and asking Google to “play music in the family room” which opens YouTube Music by default, but can be given specific instructions to play from other apps too.
Mounting the A.1 couldn’t get easier, with cut-outs provided for a wall-install, or magnetic rubber feet for a table-top. It’s the size of a router so can really be hidden away from view too and if you do, just the supplied IR trigger can be kept in view in case you want it to learn commands for connected devices. The VSSL app provides all the settings as you’d expect, including EQ, Zone settings, IR control, Input name customization and even a Dark Mode to match with your phone. Speaker connections are through a phoenix connector, so you can give those audiophile anacondas a break and revert to good ol’ stripped wire. Power is rated differently for a 4ohm load and an 8ohm load, understandably and it’s safe to assume that the A.1 is best used to power small bookshelf or medium tower (floorstanding) speakers.
With the convenience attached to streaming directly from your app, outright sound quality takes a back seat because you end up discovering a lot more music than a conventional CD player or turntable based system and that’s precisely the kind of system the VSSL A.1 wants to find a home in. But having said that, it does sound detailed enough, loud enough and with an acceptable amount of soundstage depth using the Sonus Faber Lumina 3 that I had hooked up to the system at the point. Typically, the VSSL would be powering something even smaller like an in-ceiling or in-wall speaker but it was impressive to see it handle a mid-fi tower speaker without breaking a sweat. It does sound a bit edgy at the top but the built-in EQ can be brought into service to tame the proceedings. Vocal delivery was well-judged and authoritative and the low-end was kept tidy and good control over the woofers too. What I found annoying though was that at random times, while using Google Voice Assistant to play music, it would start playing at max volume, giving both me and the resident speakers a fright! Coupled with a tangible lag in the in-app volume control to bring the SPL down to human levels means the few precious seconds could be the end of your tweeters if they are the sensitive kinds. I’m sure this was a glitch I couldn’t get my head around and something that seems easily fixable through the app. But it happened more than a few times during my test period, making me over cautious before casually throwing requests at OK Google!
There’s no denying that the VSSL A.1 is a brilliantly simple and easy to use piece of kit that you fit and even forget that it’s ever there. That’s actually the best kind of hardware. But the small chink in its armour is its asking price, which at almost Rs. 70,000 seems like a fair bit to add streaming capabilities to your existing system. A Chromecast device or even a Bluetooth dongle could get that job done and if you have AirPlay 2 compatible speakers, chances are, they’re active anyway. So the VSSL fits in a small niche that also wants to grow the scope of music in their home, with greater control and a sizable budget too, considering you’ll need more VSSL devices to open up more zones and power more speakers. It’s not cheap, but if you can afford it, it certainly is the fastest way to unlock your music from your favourite app, in native resolution.